Musings on the State of Emergency and the Coronavirus

It seems such a long, long, time ago; that fateful week in March when suddenly everything shut down. But it’s really just going on three months – a blink of an eye — since a state of emergency was called. We were no longer free to go out whenever or wherever we wanted; see friends; go shopping without restraints; no longer able to travel; do errands; think about making a reservation at your favorite restaurant; go for a walk in a favorite park without worrying if someone was standing too close to you. Yoga in a studio, forget it. Swimming in an indoor pool. No way. Fitness clubs. Locked up. Bars and Restaurants closed. Take out only. The workplace shut down. Suddenly, we were prisoners in our own homes and in our own minds — wondering, speculating, fearful and sad as we confronted the unknown.

Millions worldwide are sick from the Coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands have died. Who knows how many more are asymptomatic? The economic disparities of our world have become even clearer – the chasm between the haves and have-nots even wider. Sheltering at home we applaud the heroes – the front line workers — nurses, doctors, caregivers, helping the sick, the aged; the army of workers keeping our food chains moving. Those who can work from home do. Those that no longer have work worry about their future. There is endless speculation about the economy, a vaccine, a recession, unemployment, treatments and endless predictions about the world to come.

Many lament the loss of certainty, predictability and control. This worry runs like an endless loop, causing many moments of immense suffering. But the truth is no one has or has had any real control over the present; the future or the past. It’s just we think we do. We wear a veil of delusion and or illusion that all is within our control or that if we plan enough we can know what the future holds.

But this pandemic really illustrates how unknown, uncertain and impermanent life can be.  Everything can change on a dime. It’s a lesson we can all learn, myself included. The trick is not to get entangled in the tales of an unknown future or present as that just creates suffering and pain. It’s something I remind myself of each morning when I make my way to my meditation cushion. “This is how it is now,” I say to myself as I settle in and begin to focus on my breath or sensations in my body.

Sometimes, I wonder how I would get through this period without my practice, without the ability to sit and be – in presence and awareness. It’s impossible to imagine. Ironically, I am grateful for the sudden halt of normal life – this great expanse of free time – during which I can dedicate myself to my mindfulness meditation practice. Each day it grows deeper, teaching me to really be with what is right now. I’ve found great solace and wisdom in it, beginning to crack open the unknowable knowable, the concepts of suffering, impermanence and non-self.

And yet that doesn’t preclude fear. We all have our moments – afraid to go out; worried about possible exposure. I had to have some routine blood work done by my doctor earlier this month and I had a huge anxiety attack as I ventured out. And yet I survived. The story I told myself about that journey was worse than the actual journey. So much needless suffering or Dukkha as the Buddhists call it.

Each morning when I wake, when the daylight slips stealthily underneath the glass door separating my living space from my sleeping space, I spring up and out of bed, hoping that today will be different, that it will be over — that this lockdown is nothing more than a dystopian nightmare – called The Culling – something my imagination has conjured up or a special to be broadcast on Netflix.

But no, the pandemic is real. How human of me to wish it otherwise. How human to want to isolate and stay home with the covers drawn up over my head.

As the early dawn arrives I head to my meditation cushion. “This is how it is now,” I tell myself. “Body sitting; body breathing.”

What comes next? The daily count of the infected and sick here is slowly dropping after close to three months. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have become the centre of the crisis – petri dishes of infection.  Still, compared to Europe, the United States or the developing world we have fared better than most. Outside my window the world continues to unfold. The icy-blue snow has gone.  Spring has arrived. The greening of trees has begun. Cherry blossoms and magnolias have bloomed and faded. The lake has taken on a crystal silvery shimmer that was previously dimmed by the pollution and smog that routinely hung over this city. Even the rainy grey days of spring have a more translucent light.

The Canadian government has handled the crisis, coming up with all kinds of financial support for those that need it and developing policy on the fly, adroitly and with compassion. And even more astonishingly petty political differences have for the most part been put aside — although that is beginning to change, as is the temperament of citizens. The cracks are beginning to show in people’s souls even as the country begins to reopen. Many are in despair; just getting by. Others don’t have enough money to pay their rent or buy food. Food banks always busy are now swamped. Shelters for the homeless are full and new improvised housing has to be found – all have to accommodate a two-metre social distancing. A tent city has sprung up on a swatch of grass across from where I live in downtown Toronto – a patchwork quilt of greens, reds, blues and oranges– from my vantage point here on the 16th floor. The homeless have gathered there fearful of bedding down in the shelters, fearful of this invisible, inexplicable virus.

A state of emergency continues here to June 2nd and maybe longer. And there are suggestions that we may have to lockdown again if numbers of cases go up. Borders remain closed. Each province; each city is on its own timetable as is the world. Still, many remain fearful of leaving their homes; of beginning to re-emerge from this weird cocoon we’ve woven for ourselves. And now as politicians and officials begin to loosen the restraints people begin to re-imagine their lives and wonder what will be next; what do they do next; how do they rebuild their lives; their world? Is it just business as usual? Or is this an opportunity to start anew; to do something new and different? I hope so, but all of these questions can provoke more suffering on a personal level. More stories we tell ourselves about the world and our engagement in it — more suffering.

As for me I will continue digging deeply into my meditation practice, just sitting, breathing and being –part of vast spacious awareness. I feel a sense of freedom as the boundaries of my body melt into the space around me, leaving me with a sense of interconnectedness, resting in being, taking refuge in being. Just being. Me. You. Breath.


Debra Black is a former feature writer and news reporter with the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. Over her 28 plus year career there she won a number of national awards for her journalism, including the National Newspaper Award. She also has won a number of awards for magazine writing prior to her working at the Star. Her poems were first published in University of Toronto literary magazines in the mid-1970s when she was a student. The magazines have long gone, but her love of the written word and poetry has not disappeared.

Throughout her career as a journalist, she covered public policy issues such as education and immigration and diversity and has interviewed some of Canada’s leading politicians, writers and thinkers. She has travelled extensively and taught journalism in Rwanda and covered the HIV crisis in South Africa and Swaziland for the Star. Throughout her career as a journalist, she continued to write poetry for herself and others. Having left the Star, she now teaches yin yoga and meditation and spends many an hour writing and polishing her poetry, exploring the human condition and themes of love and existence.

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